ALEX FERGUSON leads Manchester United into a Manchester derby for the 44th time this afternoon, but never has he done so with his opponents clear favourites to win.
nited come into the game off the back of two straight league defeats, enfeebled by injuries and having to deny reports that their most important player is for sale.
City, on the other hand, are on top of the world. They have not lost at home in more than a year and, in domestic football, have won their last 18 games at the Etihad stadium.
Wayne Rooney presents the greatest threat to City today. They will need little reminding that just under a year ago his spectacular aerial volley consigned them to defeat at Old Trafford.
Yet Rooney's relationship with Ferguson has become complicated at just the wrong time for United.
Rooney was fined and dropped for going out on St Stephen's Day. Irish pair Jonny Evans and Darron Gibson were also punished but that Ferguson felt the need to damage his own side's chances in an important league game shows how seriously he had taken the offence.
Having missed the embarrassing home defeat against Blackburn, Rooney was tetchy and sloppy against Newcastle, culminating in his being substituted. Ferguson does need Rooney to regain complete focus. Fast.
Rooney is the sort of player whose form is directly affected by his state of mind away from the pitch. Problems in his private life affected his form at the last World Cup and his performances the following autumn, when he threatened to leave Old Trafford before signing a new contract, were decidedly poor.
The arrest of his father before that England game in Montenegro was followed by a red card on the pitch. When Rooney discovered he was suspended for the group stage of Euro 2012, Ferguson left him out of his United side fearing he was not in the right frame of mind.
The frustrating thing from a United point of view is that Rooney looked as if he was about to go on one of his rich runs. He is a player who scores in fecund patches and, after eight league games without a goal, he had hit four in three in the build-up to Christmas. That momentum has been checked in the last three games.
So this fixture makes special demands of Rooney. He knows he will be scrutinised after his indiscretion, and as a consequence of the rumours about his future. He must show the mental fortitude to cope with this kind of pressure. These are the occasions that define truly great players.
And how his United team-mates could do with the inspiration. They were insipid in the face of a robust Newcastle and defeat this afternoon would further erode their confidence.
The statistical analysis shows City superior in every department -- they have out-passed, out-tackled and out-shot United this season. They have the psychological edge on them too, having beaten them in the FA Cup semi-final last season and inflicted that 6-1 humiliation at Old Trafford.
Ferguson needs a special performance from Rooney, something to intimidate Roberto Mancini's team, tease out the doubts. The Italian has made it clear he is conscious that elimination could expose vulnerabilities in City's psychology. After all, United are just three points behind them in the league.
The worst scenario for United is a second convincing defeat to their rivals and Rooney sinking further into a funk.
While Ferguson is confident of getting Chris Smalling and Evans back next week he revealed that Ashley Young will be out for at least a month. Tom Cleverley is only scheduled to start running again in two weeks, while Michael Owen will not be fit until mid-February. "I think if we keep getting the injuries we've been getting it's going to be very difficult for us," Ferguson said.
And with games against Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham all coming by March 3, Ferguson cannot afford to have his players trapped in a spiral of diminishing confidence. Least of all Rooney.
Sunday Indo Sport